The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a good position to make the playoffs again. They’re currently third place in the toughest division in hockey, with a record of 24-10-3, competing neck-and-neck with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers for the top spot in the division.
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With the Maple Leafs’ sights set on home ice advantage, it’s a safe bet to say they’re going to be looking to buy at the trade deadline on Mar. 21. Granted, the stakes are going to be a little bit higher at this year’s deadline for a couple of reasons. The first one is the elephant in the room; the Maple Leafs are currently riding a five-year streak of first round collapses, three of those under general manager Kyle Dubas. Repeating history for the sixth year in a row would ultimately put him on the hot seat if he isn’t there already, so having the best roster possible for the playoffs is a top priority.
The second one is because of how poorly last season’s trade acquisitions panned out for the Maple Leafs. They gave up a first round pick for eleven games of Nick Foligno, who was injured for half of his tenure in Toronto. They also gave up a third round pick for David Rittich, and while the price paid for him doesn’t hurt as much, he was a complete non-factor for them during his time with the organization.
So, with roughly two months to go before the trade deadline, any questions we may have had about Dubas’ deadline plans were answered yesterday. In Sportsnet columnist Elliotte Friedman’s latest 32 Thoughts piece, he says that he believes the Maple Leafs “aren’t against” clearing cap space to add somebody at the deadline.
This raises a couple of questions. Who could the Maple Leafs move to clear cap space, and who would they be opening up this cap space for?
Maple Leafs’ Holl and Ritchie Could Be Among Trade Chips
Let me be clear from the get-go. I’m not saying Justin Holl and Nick Ritchie are on their way out. But, if you’re looking at players the Maple Leafs could move to clear up salary without really hurting the team, these two players make the most sense to trade.
It’s been a forgettable season for Holl, who the Maple Leafs made an effort to keep by exposing Jared McCann in the 2021 expansion draft. He signed a three-year contract ahead of the 2020-21 season with an average annual value (AAV) of $2 million. And he actually looked like he was worth that money in 2020-21, often handling some of the Maple Leafs’ toughest defensive situations alongside Jake Muzzin.
But after posting career-high offensive numbers with 20 points in 55 games, his offense has been almost completely non-existent in 2021-22. He has only three points in 29 games, and didn’t score his first goal of the season until New Years Day against the Ottawa Senators. On top of this, he currently carries the lowest Corsi-for percentage (CF%) among Maple Leafs defensemen at 49.5%.
Holl’s status would probably be a little bit safer if not for 22-year-old Timothy Liljegren, who’s been getting regular looks in the lineup more often this season. A first round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2017, Liljegren has been marinating in the American Hockey League (AHL) for four seasons now, and he’s looked much more comfortable at the NHL level in 2021-22 compared to the looks he got in the previous two seasons. If the Maple Leafs were to move Holl for a rental defenseman, Liljegren is in a position where he could be ready for a look in the top-four as soon as next season.
Ritchie, on the other hand, has seen his own fair share of struggles in 2021-22. After signing a two-year contract with an AAV of $2.5 million, he had a hard time finding his footing with the team to start the season. He didn’t register his first point as a Leaf until his ninth game of the season, and didn’t score his first goal until his 27th game. To date, he has only two goals and nine points in 33 games.
The return (and emergence) of Ilya Mikheyev to the lineup has made Ritchie’s situation much more dire. He doesn’t really provide anything on the defensive side of the game, so if he’s not scoring goals, he doesn’t bring much value to the lineup. I’m sure the toughness is something the Maple Leafs would want on their side come playoff time, but it’s hard to justify leaving him in the lineup until then.
Other potential trade chips for the Maple Leafs include Petr Mrazek, who’s only played four games after signing a three-year contract with an AAV of $3.8 million, and Pierre Engvall, who’s in the final year of a two-year contract with an AAV of $1.25 million. However, I can’t imagine Mrazek’s contract would be an easy one to move given the combination of money and term, meanwhile Engvall brings enough value to the table defensively that it may not be worth it to move his contract.
Klingberg, Hertl Among Maple Leafs’ Possible Trade Targets
I know, I just dropped two pretty big names there. And, truthfully, there’s nothing to suggest the Maple Leafs are interested in either of these players. But if they’re serious about improving their team at the deadline and willing to open up cap space to do so, then I’d imagine they’re thinking big. And if you want to think big, John Klingberg is a good place to start.
My THW colleague Shane Seney wrote a piece highlighting the potential of a blockbuster trade between the Maple Leafs and the Dallas Stars. And the possibility of Klingberg being moved is even higher now than it was before. The Swedish right-handed defenseman has 17 points in 31 games so far this season, and the Stars have ramped up trade talks after contract negotiations were stalled.
It sounds weird to say, but the Maple Leafs could actually use another offensive-minded defenseman. Besides Morgan Rielly, none of the Maple Leafs’ defensemen really do much to produce offense. Muzzin and T.J. Brodie are tied for second among Maple Leafs’ defensemen in scoring with eleven points each. Rasmus Sandin is their quarterback on the second power play unit, but doesn’t have any goals this year and only nine assists in 30 games.
By adding Klingberg, who makes $4.5 million until the end of the season, the Maple Leafs would give them a second outlet for offense on the back end, a legitimate second power-play quarterback, and most importantly, he would allow Muzzin to play a more stay-at-home game and focus on the defensive side of things, which is the role he’s seen the most success in dating back to his time with the Los Angeles Kings.
Tomas Hertl, on the other hand, is a bit of a pipe dream acquisition, especially since the San Jose Sharks are sitting in a Wild Card spot right now. But he’s currently making $5.6 million and will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) this summer. If the Sharks begin to falter towards the trade deadline, they might want to sell high and get something in return for him.
Hertl would be an earth shattering acquisition for the Maple Leafs. The 28-year-old Czech forward can play all three forward positions and has 20 goals and 35 points in 40 games this season. He would give the Maple Leafs a bona fide top-line left wing to compliment Auston Matthews, and push one of Alex Kerfoot or Michael Bunting onto the third line, giving the Maple Leafs a ridiculously stacked top-nine.
The downside is that, when you consider what Foligno went for at last year’s deadline, you’d have to imagine the Sharks would demand a king’s ransom for Hertl. And since Hertl will likely be looking for an extension in the range of $7-9 million per year, you can forget about any possibility of the Maple Leafs signing him long term. But still, if a player like him is available at the deadline and you have the means to acquire him, there’s never any harm in considering it.
Those are two players off of the top of my head that I could see the Maple Leafs putting together an offer for, IF they plan to shed salary to make a deal. Another option is Buffalo Sabres defenseman Colin Miller, who my THW colleague Peter Baracchini covered in a separate piece. He’s in the final year of a four-year contract with an AAV of $3.875 million, and would be an upgrade on the right side of the defensive corps.
Maple Leafs Should Not Double Down On Their Mistakes
It’s kind of funny. Over the offseason, I wrote an article on why the Maple Leafs had unfinished business with Foligno, and why they should consider re-signing him. I felt that his time in Toronto didn’t play out nearly the way anybody wanted it to, largely due to injury, and that there might be potential for another kick at the can.
It’s a great thing the Maple Leafs didn’t listen to me, because Foligno currently has only six points in 23 games. He’s struggled with injuries this season as well, and makes $3.8 million until the end of next season. One of my arguments in that piece was that bringing Foligno back could have potentially softened the blow of what they gave up to get him. Having said that, I failed to acknowledge that it also could have opened up the wound even more, which would have happened if they brought him back and he was having that kind of season here.
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While Dubas made the right call here, it’s important that he doesn’t double down on poor decisions in the past. It’s looking like exposing McCann to protect Holl during the expansion draft came back to bite them. Same with Ritchie’s contract. So, if you have an opportunity to move either of those players, you do it. It’s obviously going to be tough, hell, Ritchie cleared waivers, which should speak volumes about the amount of value he has. But at this point, the cap relief is enough to pay the price of accepting your mistake.
The Maple Leafs have a tame schedule as it stands, but with the NHL announcing the rescheduling of 98 postponed games in February, they’re about to play a lot of hockey. And as we get closer to the deadline, we’re about to see what this team’s really made of and what they might need to open up this extra cap space for.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.